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Utah bills would ease student dress codes for religious, cultural items

Brigetta-Monet Uta'i wears a traditional Samoan outfit to her graduate degree ceremony at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., in 2017. Photo courtesy of Brigetta-Monet Uta'i
1 of 2 | Brigetta-Monet Uta'i wears a traditional Samoan outfit to her graduate degree ceremony at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., in 2017. Photo courtesy of Brigetta-Monet Uta'i

Feb. 6 (UPI) -- As high school students around the country fight for the right to wear religious and cultural items at graduation and athletic events, Utah is considering legislation to allow it.

Two bills -- Senate Bill 103, sponsored by Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Salt Lake City, and House Bill 191, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy -- say adornments can be attached to or worn with a cap and gown but cannot replace the attire. Under the bills, school boards can prohibit adornment that is likely to cause a "substantial disruption of, or material interference with," the graduation ceremony.

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"The school districts must come up with a policy," Kwan said. "They cannot outright ban religious and cultural items but they can determine what is disruptive."

In addition, SB103 requires school boards to get input about whether an item is a recognized object of religious or cultural significance from parents who are reflective of the members of the group associated with the adornment.

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Kwan said she and Eliason are in talks about coordinating their bills.

Also pending in the Utah Legislature is House Bill 163, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, that says students participating in an athletic activity have the right to wear religious clothing with their uniforms or, consistent with their religious or moral beliefs, clothing that covers parts of their body without "substantially" covering the uniform.

Kwan said members of the Pacific Islander community from several school districts came to her last year with concerns about what were essentially bans on students wearing leis to the graduation. Leis were not specifically forbidden by any district, but policies about wearing only official graduation attire meant they could not be worn, she said.

At a Jordan School District Board of Education meeting last spring, attendees talked about how leis have not only cultural significance but also religious and sacred implications, Kwan said. A few students also spoke about their worries that they could not wear attire from their Middle Eastern culture, such as a hijab, because it would show, she said.

"They implored the Jordan School District to allow it," Kwan said.

With graduation approaching, Jordan board members voted in May to allow leis and other religious and cultural items to be worn at the 2022 ceremony but did not change the district's dress code policy.

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The Alpine School District Board of Education also voted in May to allow religious and cultural objects to be worn. Students must get preapproval from the Utah district's administration for these adjustments to their graduation wear.

An online petition calling for students to be allowed to wear cultural attire at their graduation had been launched in response to an Alpine district student being forced in 2018 to remove the Tongan ta'ovala cloth he was wearing under his gown before he could join the ceremony.

Since those changes, community members have heard of schools where officials are thinking of putting the ban back on, creating the need for her bill, Kwan said. She said the legislation would provide transparency about district policies.

Keepsake leis

Brigetta-Monet Uta'i was disappointed she was not allowed to wear a lei when she graduated from Jordan High School in 2011. As the daughter of two immigrant parents from Samoa, wearing culture-related attire shows appreciation for the sacrifices they made for the family to be in America, she said.

Leis - which can be made of money, flowers, candy, ribbons and other objects - typically are celebratory gifts made for special occasions, Uta'i said. Leis for graduations can be made in school colors and saved as keepsakes, she said.

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"It's a big gift to show respect," said Uta'i, who now works as an event specialist with the NHL's Nashville Predators.

Uta'i said no one took issue with the leis she wore in graduation ceremonies when she received a bachelor's degree from Webber International University in Babson Park, Fla., and a master's degree from the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

"I wore cultural attire throughout the entire ceremony," she said, adding that her husband, who is Caucasian, also was adorned with leis. "Everyone thought it was a wonderful and beautiful way to celebrate people."

SB103 would not limit or impair any rights under the Student Tribal Regalia Use Amendments, a bill that was approved unanimously last year by the Utah Legislature. The legislation allows students who are enrolled as members of a tribe or eligible to be enrolled to wear traditional dress and recognized objects of religious or cultural significance.

Barred from graduation

Similar legislation has been introduced in other states, including in Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill into law in 2021 prohibiting public and charter school dress codes that prevent students from wearing traditional regalia or objects of cultural significance at graduation.

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Two years before the law was enacted, Larissa Waln, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, a Native American tribe, asked Dysart School District to accommodate her religious practice by allowing her to wear an eagle feather on her cap during her graduation ceremony. The request was denied on the ground that there were no exceptions to a dress code policy that prohibited decorating caps.

Waln arrived at the graduation in Glendale, Ariz., wearing the plume, which had been blessed in a religious ceremony, and was barred from attending the event. She filed suit in federal court alleging the district had violated her free exercise of religion and free speech rights by selectively enforcing its policy and allowing students to wear secular messages, including one who had a "breast cancer awareness" sticker on his cap.

After a federal trial court judge concluded Waln had not alleged a plausible claim and threw out the suit, she appealed to the 9th Circuit, which reversed the dismissal.

The appeals court notes in its Dec. 9 ruling that the school district has said its policy is designed to maintain the sanctity and formality of the graduation ceremony, avoid disruption and foster unity in the graduating class.

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"But altered graduation caps -- whether with a secular message or a religious symbol -- present a nearly identical threat to those interests," the ruling says. "Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to assert that the district enforced its policy to permit the secular and forbid the religious."

Judge M. Miller Baker dissented in part, saying nothing in the suit tended to exclude the possibility that the student with the secular sticker on his cap simply broke the rules. However, he said the trial court judge should have allowed Waln to amend the suit with additional factual content.

The 9th Circuit did not rule on the merits of the suit and the case is pending in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

Dressing modestly

Pierucci's bill also is a response to the concerns of community members. She said Muslim girls have been told they could not wear a hijab, or head covering, while playing sports.

The Utah legislator also cited an instance in which a referee for a club sports league told two basketball players who are Sikhs and were wearing turbans that they had to remove the "towels" or they could not play.

After the two said the turbans were part of their religion and declined to take them off, the referee told them their team would have to forfeit the game, Pierucci said. Their coach backed them up and the game eventually went forward.

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"A student should never be put in a position of having to choose between participating in a sport and wearing religious headwear or religious clothing," she said.

Last year, Pierucci sponsored a resolution in 2022 encouraging all municipalities, public and private K-12 schools, universities and organizations to allow youth to wear religious clothing or headwear or to modify their uniforms to accommodate religious beliefs or personal values of modesty "without barriers or limitations."

The modesty part of the resolution was sparked by a protest by Norway's women's beach handball team against the sport's requirement that they wear bikini bottoms when they competed. The women's team was fined in 2021 by the European Handball Federation for wearing shorts during a game.

A photo of male players wearing tank tops and shorts next to female players wearing bikini bottoms and crop tops showed the different standards for the women's and men's teams. After widespread complaints, the International Handball Federation changed the women's uniform to tank tops and shorts.

Pierucci said the original uniform did not serve an athletic purpose.

"It's just culturally we expect women to play in bikinis and it's ridiculous," she said.

Her resolution was approved unanimously last year by the Utah Legislature. However, Pierucci said she kept hearing about additional issues and decided it was time to codify religious freedom protections.

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HB163 bars schools and athletic associations from prohibiting student players who are participating in a school-related athletic activity or an activity using school facilities from wearing religious or modest clothing.

In addition, the schools and associations must provide the religious clothing if they require that it be a certain material, style or color. Pierucci gave as an example a player being told that her hijab must be the same color and material as the uniform.

"It's an unfair cost to add to them when they already have their own hijab they could wear," she said.

States that have recently adopted laws that allow students to wear religious clothing include Maryland, Ohio and Illinois.

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